28th November1999
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Chipping in on history

With the millennium round the corner, rare historical documents at the 
National Museum Library will go hi-tech, with a fully equipped microfilming unit 
to preserve these priceless items
By a Special Correspondent
The very word 'museum' connotes the past, a building exhibiting objects of historical and cultural interest, and the words 'museum library' may make even professional librarians screw up their faces in displeasure. They visualize tightly packed musty old books in rows of shelves and almirahs. 'Libraries' are things of the past in as much as they preserve the record of all that has happened or been conceived of in this world.
National Museum Library
The Colombo National Museum Library was established in January 1877. The collection of manuscripts belonging to the Government Oriental Library set up in 1870 was transferred to the Museum and served as the nucleus of the Museum Library. Collections of the Library of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (formed in 1845) were also brought in. In 1877 when the Library was opened, the total number of volumes was 1440. 

The law (Ordinance No. 1 of 1885) requires that a copy of every document printed in the country has to be deposited in the Museum Library. This is one of the few libraries that possesses the entire range of documents from the first work printed in 1737 to the latest publication. The collection was enhanced from time to time with donations made by notable persons. Ven. Kalukondayaye Pannasekera Thero, W.A de Silva, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and H.C.P. Bell to mention a few.

The library has the largest collection of palm leaf manuscripts in the country including the oldest so far discovered, namely, the Chullavagga of the 13th century. Besides manuscripts written in Sinhala, it has many palm manuscripts written in Pali, Sanskrit, Burmese and Cambodian.

The entire library collection is housed in part of the eastern wing of the Museum building, an area of about 9000 square feet. The books are crammed into closed cupboards and shelves. The library does not have the necessary facilities for air-conditioning, restoring and conserving such an extensive collection of books and documents. 

Various committees and experts have from time to time stressed the urgency of taking remedial steps to preserve this national collection.

Conservation project
The Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs appointed a committee with the Director of the Museum as Chairman, to consider the preservation of the collection of documents in the Museum as a matter of urgent national importance. On the committee's proposals the Ministry requested permission from President Chandrika Kumaratunga to set up a special accelerated conservation programme and also appealed for financial assistance to implement a programme for the preservation and development of the Museum library.

The President responded to this request and made a grant of Rs 10 million from the President's Fund.

Accelerated project
An action committee was set up under the chairmanship of the Deputy Minister of Cultural and Religious Affairs, Prof. A.V Suraweera, to formulate a project for the conservation and development of the library. The accelerated project to be implemented includes:

*The construction of two new buildings in between the existing two wings of the National Museum. This would ease the present congestion in the existing library area. The government has approved the plan and allocated Rs.150 million for the construction.

*The new spacious building will be fully air-conditioned and include an auditorium gallery area and special rooms for different facilities and equipment.

*A programme for the restoration and preservation of books and manuscripts to be given immediate priority.

*Fumigation to save the books and manuscripts from insects and other biological forces.

*De-acidification, repair and conservation of books that are deteriorating and the installing of dehumidifiers.

*Twelve young people have already been trained at the Museum by Indian experts in the conservation and restoration of books, papers and old manuscripts. Special laboratories have been equipped for this work.

Japan's gift
In the meantime, the Director of the Museum had the foresight to look at the latest advancements in document preservation and effective management and solicited a generous gift from the Government of Japan of all the required equipment for a complete microfilming unit, which would preserve the historical documents and rare books of the Museum Library.
Microfilm unit
A separate building of 1800 square feet was constructed, fully air-conditioned and with wall- to- wall carpeting laid to accommodate the entire microfilm unit comprising: one 35 mm microfilm camera: three 16 mm microfilm cameras; five microfiche readers; three micro print reader printers; one book binding machine; book mending tools & materials; storage cabinets for microfilms; jacketing machines; lenses; lighting; large quantities of microfilms and chemicals to commence the project. The entire value of the gift was Rs. 70 million.

Lake House Investments and the local agents for Canon microprint equipment installed and commissioned the equipment. They went further and trained seven officers of the Museum in the filming of documents, newspapers and manuscripts and also in the processing, editing and printing of the microfilms. 

The unit has commenced work by microfilming rare books and manuscripts.

The policy of the National Museum Library is to preserve all the books and documents deposited in the library. This policy has led to acute maintenance and storage problems. Older material must be preserved and on hand when a special request is made, but the original text need not be used, a microfilm copy will suffice. In the face of severe storage and preservation problems in libraries microchips are the solution. Microfilms will preserve and keep the collection within a manageable size and building space.

Microfilm can last forever. It is an archival medium that cannot be beaten when it comes to long term records retention. Thus far microfilm offers the most readable and sharp image. It is easy and convenient to use. Libraries can depend on microfilm for efficient and economic storage of masses of information.

Computerization of the library holdings is due to start soon and within a few years the Museum Library will have a fully computerized catalogue.

Very early in the 21st century the resources of the Museum Library will be available in searchable form on the Web. Users will be able to search on-line historical material, by the last name of the author, a title subject heading or a specific year.

This will enable a wider, greater accessibility for scholarly use. Researchers, scholars and those who have legitimate interests will have the facilities for exchanging documents with other national and research libraries.

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